Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions

In the wake of Yoder's death in 1997, a number of books appeared in the early '00s seeking to evaluate and synthesis Yoder's numerous works. Mark Thiessen Nation's book is probably one of the more successful and accessible volumes of this type (I will write about Zimmerman and Carter in separate posts).

Nation is one of the foremost 'Yoder' scholars, if that's a category for scholars. He is responsible for producing a definitive bibliography of all Yoder's work, and has done extensive research in understanding Yoder's life, thought, and development. The admiration that Nation has for his subject is obvious, most clearly in his conclusion where he has scant criticism to make of his hero.

The success of his volume on Yoder is to be found in being neither too ambitious, too academic, or too biographical. While spending chapter 1 of 5 on a biographical sketch, the book works to place Yoder, not to explain him, and to give a sense of his historical situation, development, and impact. This heightens my appreciation for Yoder, rather than explaining away his thought and work as 'mere' products of his situation.

Nation's chapter divisions are very well chosen. They do not slice the pie up arbitrarily, but highlight and showcase several important aspects of Yoder's work, and relate them each to his historical involvement. This includes chapter 2 - Yoder's studies of historical 16th century Anabaptist, chapter 3 dealing with Yoder's ecumenical involvements and contiguous writings, chapter 4 dealing with pacifism, and the central significance (if perhaps more for others than for Yoder, of "The Politics of Jesus" in 1972), and chapter 5 answering questions of 'irresponsibility' and social (dis)engagement.

The strength of Nation's book is the way he clearly connects various aspects of Yoder's work, and shows its intrinsic interconnections - neither arbitrary nor tenuous, Yoder was a consistent, though rarely systematic, thinker. Nation also opens up and explores some of Yoder's lower profile writings, giving an 'in' to further reading.

The writing is quite accessible (far more so than Carter), and makes a good entry point for reading and thinking about Yoder. It's also, thankfully, the kind of work that will point the reader back to reading some more Yoder, with a greater appreciation and awareness.

If there's something more Nation could have done, it would have been a little more of the same - a little more biography, a little more exploration, and certainly a little more criticism. Nonetheless, Nation has provided a fine little volume.

John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions

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